Searching for Sero mental wellness project grows out of suicide grief

A couple from Gatineau, Que., is embarking on a journey across North America in the new year to promote mental health after both lost family members to suicide in 2014.

Two-year journey across North America aims to collect stories of mental wellness using outdoor sport

John Rathwell, Tracy Guenard and their dog, Rain, sit on the edge of their camper-van before the engine was stripped for extensive restoration ahead of their two-year roadtrip to promote mental health. (John Rathwell)

John Rathwell was mourning his father's suicide when his partner's aunt took her own life just months later in December 2014.

"It brought back, pretty much all the memories and the emotions that I was just starting to get over, and all of a sudden I had to relive them," he said.

While trying to come to terms to the loss of their loved ones, the Gatineau couple turned to nature and sport to find happiness, he said.

"It was a tough winter for both of us and we just found that getting out skiing made us feel better," Rathwell said. "We could go skiing and for those few hours, nothing else matters."

The difficult experience has inspired a two-year road trip across North America in a camper-van to collect stories of mental wellness achieved through sport and outdoor activity. The project is called Searching For Sero — short for serotonin, a neurotransmitter believed to contribute to happiness.

Rathwell, a photographer, and his partner Tracy Guenard, a writer, are selling their condo in Aylmer, Que. to embark on the roadtrip this spring with their beagle labrador mix, Rain.

They're packing skis, mountain bikes, kayaks and surfboards to explore the outdoors through the seasons and landscapes along the way.

Launching in Newfoundland

The couple plans to begin the journey in Newfoundland in the spring.

"We'll dip our toes in the ocean or do something corny like that to officially kick off the trip and then from there we'll be heading west," he said.
This old camper-van, suspended in a shop in Manotick Station, with be home to John Rathwell, Tracy Guenard and their dog as they travel across North America. (courtesy of John Rathwell)

From there, they plan to travel west across Canada and eventually north to Whitehorse before heading south through the United States. The final destination is Maine, where they expect to arrive in Spring 2018.

Until then, they are busy planning the finer details of the trip, raising money for the two-year adventure and restoring their 1991 Volkswagen Vanagon Westfalia camper-van.

"All the mechanical parts are off it right now. It has no wheels, no motor, no transmission or anything. It's just starting to come back together now," he said. "We want to do that because a breakdown on the road would be really, really expensive."

 'Outdoor inspiration' nomination

They have already started telling stories online of how others, like them, have found happiness through sport.

Moving forward, their plan is to publish a story and photo spread once a week about how outdoor adventure is promoting mental health and happiness.

The couple has already published some stories on their website, with Rathwell taking photos and Guenard writing.

They have a database of contacts they expect to meet on their journey but also hope to meet people "organically," Rathwell said.

The couple raised more than $12,000 in a crowdfunding campaign in November.

They are searching for sponsors as they head to an outdoor tradeshow in Salt Lake City, Utah next week where Rathwell has been nominated for an "outdoor inspiration" award for the Searching For Sero project.

"We're hoping to draw more attention to it, and in the end, draw more attention to mental health and suicide prevention," he said.

Rathwell plans to create a "best of" photo book at the end of the journey and donate the proceeds to suicide-prevention charities.

Searching for Sero is set to begin in Newfoundland and end in Maine. This is the route map. (courtesy of John Rathwell)


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